A bolt of lightning sparked the Carpenter 1 Fire, but Mount Charleston’s largest blaze on record was fueled by mistakes made by people over the past 100 years.
So says one forest fire expert who hopes the almost 28,000-acre blaze will finally spur a change in the way we manage the Spring Mountains and forests across the West.
Scott Abella is a forest ecologist and research professor who is leading an effort by UNLV to reconstruct what the Spring Mountains looked like in 1900, before what he called “fire exclusion.”
“When U.S. policy became fire is bad — Smokey Bear and all that — there was a huge increase in tree density and underbrush,” Abella explained.
The Ponderosa pine forest of old featured more widely spaced trees and light ground cover that was regularly swept clean by low-intensity fires.
The fight to extinguish every flame has clogged the mountain with fuel, setting the stage for massive “forest-killing type fires” like Carpenter 1, Abella said.
Simply put, Abella said: “A forest that would have burned every 10 years hasn’t burned for 100 years. Honestly, I’m surprised that it’s taken this long to see a fire like this. It’s sort of inevitable.”
A NEW APPROACH
But a growing number of scientists insist it doesn’t have to be.
Abella and others are calling for a new approach for the nation’s forests: thinning trees and brush so the landscape can be safely left to burn in the healthy, renewing way it once did.
Such “fuel treatment” work was done around inhabited areas of Mount Charleston in recent years, and experts believe it helped firefighters save homes there earlier this month.
Future treatments need to be “large enough to matter” to the forest as a whole, Abella said. After all, the need for better forest management will only grow with the projected shift toward a warmer, drier climate and longer fire seasons across the Southwest.
The idea has drawn controversy. In other forests with better timber, some have dismissed the practice of thinning trees as “logging disguised as restoration,” Abella said.
The Spring Mountains seem to have the opposite problem: mostly poor quality wood and no real market for it, leaving forest officials without a way to recoup the costs of removing trees and clearing brush.
On the other hand, Abella said, the government just spent more than $15 million to fight the Carpenter 1 Fire.
“If $15 million was available for this kind of proactive forest management, that might have been enough to treat the whole forest,” he said.
A CHANGING LANDSCAPE
For their study of how Mount Charleston once looked, Abella and his team sampled 40 different plots in 2010 and 2011, examining stumps and logs and collecting roughly 1,000 core samples from live trees.
At least 10 of their research plots burned in the Carpenter 1 Fire. So did Ponderosa pines and other trees that had survived numerous low-intensity fires over the past several hundred years.
“It’s hard to believe that trees were lost in a matter of hours that predated the U.S. as a country,” Abella said.
How long the landscape takes to recover will depend on a host of factors, including fire intensity, elevation, erosion and future climate patterns.
“How long does it take to get a 300-year-old tree? Well, 300 years,” Abella quipped. “The time scale is so long for us as people it’s difficult to conceive.”
Local conservationist and avid hiker John Hiatt said the fire might spawn a change in the character of the forest, opening the landscape to new plant communities.
Where tall, tightly grouped conifers once blocked the sun, new stands of light-loving aspens could thrive.
Where scrubby pinion and juniper dominated, fire-resistant manzanita could anchor a transition to chaparral.
“Mourn the loss of it, but life will continue,” Hiatt said. “It will be different, but it will continue.”
A WAKE-UP CALL
Forest managers might try to help things along by temporarily closing off some damaged areas, dispersing seeds or covering the blackened ground with mulch to hold in moisture and curb erosion.
They could even try to plant small trees.
Some restoration work is already underway, mostly in areas disturbed by the firefighting effort. There, fire crews are working to soften the scars left by bulldozers and hand crews are hastily digging fire lines to slow the advancing flames.
More long-term renewal efforts are still being evaluated, but little work is likely to be done in the range’s expansive wilderness areas, where so-called “active management” is restricted.
It might not matter much either way, according to one longtime firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service on Mount Charleston. Larry Benham, now retired, said the forest seems to move at its own pace and past efforts to speed new growth in burned areas have shown only limited success.
The mountainside above Cold Creek, for example, was reseeded from the air after it burned in 1981, but it remains heavily scarred and mostly bare more than 30 years later.
“For some reason, the mountain doesn’t like it whenever we try to help,” Benham said.
But he has faith in the forest. “It’s not going to come back in my or anybody’s lifetime, but it’ll come back.”
Abella hopes the Carpenter 1 Fire will serve as a wake-up call, one he said was long overdue.
“As sad as this is, I think it’s miraculous it didn’t happen years ago.”
Unless we change our approach to forest management, he warned, only a miracle will keep it from happening again.
Contact reporter Henry Brean at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0350.